The Takata re­call just dou­bled in size. Get­ting your re­place­ment air bag may take years

The Takata air bag re­call hits 64 mil­lion ve­hi­cles. It’s not over yet “I thought for sure they had fig­ured it all out. … It’s re­ally stupid”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Jeff Plungis, with Melissa Mit­tel­man

When Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion chief Mark Rosekind an­nounced on May 4 that the size of the largest auto re­call in U.S. his­tory was about to dou­ble, he also re­vealed that this safety ac­tion hits close to home. Like tens of millions of Amer­i­can cars, his is equipped with a po­ten­tially deadly Takata air bag, one that won’t be fixed any­time soon be­cause parts aren’t avail­able. The ve­hi­cle is parked in his drive­way. “I tell my wife and kids the same thing we’re telling ev­ery­one else: For all the frus­tra­tion, make sure you’re safe,” he says.

Frus­tra­tion may be an un­der­state­ment. Millions of own­ers of 17 dif­fer­ent car brands are likely to be in the same boat as the in­dus­try’s top reg­u­la­tor: learn­ing their per­sonal ve­hi­cles could ac­tu­ally kill them should an un­sta­ble air bag in­fla­tor ex­plode in their faces, then told to wait their turn—per­haps for years—un­til re­place­ment parts are avail­able.

The sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­larly galling to many own­ers who had as­sumed that the slow drip of in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing prob­lems with Takata bags over much of the past decade meant the prob­lem was be­ing

ad­dressed. “I’d heard about the re­call on Honda Ac­cords and such, which started, like, back in ’08,” says an ex­as­per­ated Carter Fawcett, whose 2012 Acura TL is on a 300ve­hi­cle wait­ing list at a deal­er­ship in Salt Lake City. Only one cus­tomer has com­pleted the re­pairs there so far, he was told. “I thought for sure they had fig­ured it all out and weren’t sell­ing de­fec­tive air bags” af­ter ear­lier re­calls, he says. “It’s re­ally stupid.”

There have been other high­pro­file re­calls over the years, such as Gen­eral Mo­tors’ faulty ig­ni­tion switches in 2014 and Toy­ota’s sud­den-ac­cel­er­a­tion woes in 2010. But

there’s never been an auto safety scan­dal that un­folded as slowly, de­lib­er­ately, and then seem­ingly ge­o­met­ri­cally as this one. Rosekind says that “a large per­cent­age of the U.S. ve­hi­cle pop­u­la­tion” need to be re­placed—cars equipped with about 67 mil­lion in­fla­tors. But even that un­der­states the sit­u­a­tion’s mag­ni­tude. Takaki Nakan­ishi, a Tokyo-based auto an­a­lyst for Jef­feries, fig­ures that Ja­pan and other na­tions are likely to follow the U.S.’s lead and ex­pand their own re­calls, adding 55 mil­lion in­fla­tors—for a to­tal of 122 mil­lion called back glob­ally.

Of the four mak­ers of air bag in­fla­tors world­wide, only Takata uses an am­mo­nium ni­trate chem­i­cal com­pound to pro­duce a con­trolled ex­plo­sion to launch the bag dur­ing a crash. The chem­i­cals have proved to be­come un­sta­ble over time, es­pe­cially un­der hu­mid con­di­tions, and 13 peo­ple have been killed in the U.S. and Malaysia af­ter their Takata bags un­in­ten­tion­ally de­ployed, send­ing shrap­nel into driv­ers or pas­sen­gers.

Re­plac­ing the bags has been slow go­ing be­cause the de­sign of a bag is unique to each car model. That means pro­duc­ers of re­place­ment bags must tool up to man­u­fac­ture scores of dif­fer­ent in­fla­tors suited to the ex­act con­fig­u­ra­tions of var­i­ous steer­ing col­umns and dash­boards.

In a May 4 state­ment in re­sponse to NHTSA ex­pand­ing the re­call, Takata said it wasn’t aware of any rup­tures in the in­fla­tors in­volved in this lat­est re­call, ei­ther in the real world or in the test lab, nor was it aware of any new data or sci­en­tific anal­y­sis that sug­gested “sub­stan­tial risk” for ve­hi­cle own­ers. It nev­er­the­less agreed to “ac­cept and sup­port” the

ex­pan­sion to help re­store pub­lic con­fi­dence. “Our ac­tions demon­strate our to­tal com­mit­ment to safety and our in­ten­tion to be part of the so­lu­tion,” Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Shige­hisa Takada said in the state­ment.

The mess started with a re­call of just 3,940 Honda Civics and Ac­cords in 2008. Three years later, the ac­tion was still con­fined to driver’s-side bags on fewer than 3 mil­lion Honda-pro­duced ve­hi­cles. In 2014 the au­tomaker re­called 2.8 mil­lion ve­hi­cles and then, for the first time, added 988,440 cars and trucks to fix pas­sen­ger-side bags. That was the first time Honda and Takata sug­gested that cli­mate could be a fac­tor, with the re­call be­ing con­cen­trated in high-hu­mid­ity states along the Gulf Coast. It then be­came a mul­ti­ple-au­tomaker prob­lem, with

Toy­ota, Nis­san, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Mazda, Mit­subishi, and

Subaru join­ing in. Sub­se­quently, NHTSA opened a de­fect in­ves­ti­ga­tion in June 2014, and a con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion started in Oc­to­ber. Takata ex­ec­u­tives pub­licly apol­o­gized at a Se­nate hear­ing in Novem­ber. Still, the com­pany re­sisted NHTSA’s calls to go even fur­ther. So on May 19, 2015, NHTSA an­nounced a na­tional re­call, along with a le­gal order to en­force the agree­ment. The next day, so many pan­icked con­sumers tried to log on to check their ve­hi­cles that they crashed the govern­ment’s auto re­call web­site.

NHTSA took over man­age­ment of the re­call last Novem­ber, en­list­ing the three other air bag sup­pli­ers—Au­to­liv,

ZF TRW Au­to­mo­tive Hold­ings, and Dai­cel—to help make re­place­ment in­fla­tors. As of April 22, au­tomak­ers had re­paired 8.2 mil­lion of the first 28.8 mil­lion re­called, about 28 per­cent of then-af­fected ve­hi­cles. And that was af­ter they’d been at it for a cou­ple of years. Now, with the re­call more than dou­bling, NHTSA hopes to com­plete the re­place­ments by the end of the decade.

In the mean­time, some deal­ers are of­fer­ing cus­tomers loaner cars. NHTSA chief Rosekind couldn’t get one, even though his agency looked into the pos­si­bil­ity of or­der­ing au­tomak­ers to of­fer loan­ers to all af­fected Amer­i­can own­ers. The govern­ment, NHTSA learned, didn’t have the au­thor­ity. “If we could have done it, we would have,” Rosekind says. That would have made things a lit­tle sim­pler for wor­ried ve­hi­cle own­ers. But with the Takata air bag de­ba­cle, noth­ing has been easy.

The bot­tom line U.S. reg­u­la­tors have more than dou­bled the num­ber of Takata air bags to be re­called. The work won’t be fin­ished un­til late 2019.

The big­gest auto re­call ever has been slowed by an in­abil­ity to get enough re­place­ment parts

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